FORT JACKSON -- Priests, rabbis, imams and Protestant ministers who serve as U.S. military chaplains came together Thursday to dedicate themselves and the nation's first joint military school for tending warriors' souls.
"We deploy side by side. We minister to all, side by side. It is only fitting that we train side by side," said Chaplain Maj. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force Chief of Chaplains, at the dedication of the new Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center.
Congress ordered the military services five years ago to merge their disparate chaplain and chaplain assistant schools. Representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force said they put aside differences of military culture to build a multi-faith education center.
The site is next to the Army's Chaplain Center and School, which trains the most chaplains of all service branches. This year, the three services expect to graduate just under 2,800 chaplains and chaplain assistants.
Military chaplains hold their own faith services but may oversee non-denominational events. If requested, they can offer counseling to any uniformed service members or relatives, as well as civilians and contractors who work for the military. They are trained to help uniformed men and women deal with the trauma of war and issues such as deployments and reunions. The joint center allows for some merged classes and lectures -- for example, when an expert in preaching or writing sermons is able to visit.
Some things, however, won't change: The three services retain some individual training, and all chaplains wear the uniforms and ranks of their respective branches. And before entering the military as chaplains, they must be ordained or certified in their specific faith group.
Some wondered which will be harder: bridging differences of faith or melding military traditions.
"Why move us 900 miles to reposition us with the Army? Oh God, why us?" joked Rear Adm. Robert Burt, Navy Chief of Chaplains, whose school was once in Newport, R.I. "This was the ultimate test of faith!"
Navy Chaplain Lt. Matthew Prince, who dons a Marine Corps uniform as a Lutheran minister to Marines at Parris Island, called it a good move, since many deploy alongside other service branches in time of war. But he still has concerns.
"Look around. Where is the water?" he said, spreading his arms at the green fields surrounding the school. "It's a benefit to get to know other military cultures, but I don't want our Navy military culture to be lost."
The director of the new Chaplaincy Center, Air Force Chaplain Col. Steven Keith, said the directors of the schools worked to bring elements of their institutions together. Stained glass from a closed Air Force chapel in Germany and a closed Army chapel in New Jersey were rebuilt and hung in the hallways.
The center has "worship training labs" so instructors can discuss diverse faiths, with items brought from the various military schools. Golden icons line the walls in a small Greek Orthodox chapel; a Muslim prayer room is outfitted with prayer rugs and copies of the Quran; and a handwritten Jewish Torah is kept inside a wooden ark, alongside Sabbath candles and Seder plates to show how Passover is celebrated.
Setting the tone in the center's front lobby is a large stained glass portrayal of Gen. George Washington, kneeling in prayer with his Anglican chaplain and his soldiers in the snow at Valley Forge.